A Costa Mesa ordinance that bars "insolent" behavior at City Council meetings violates free speech rights, but the Orange County community may continue to eject people for being disorderly, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit brought by a man ejected from a Costa Mesa City Council meeting in 2006. He argued that a city ordinance that made it a misdemeanor for speakers at council meetings to engage in "disorderly, insolent or disruptive" behavior was unconstitutional.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel agreed that the city could not ban insolence without infringing on speakers' constitutional rights, but voted 2 to 1 to let the city ordinance stand as long as the word "insolent" was excised.
Insolence may involve conduct that is simply proud, disdainful, haughty, arrogant or overbearing, behavior that is protected by the Constitution, the court said.
Insolent conduct "often likely would fall well below the level of behavior that actually disturbs, disrupts, or impedes a city council meeting," Judge Richard C. Tallman, a Clinton appointee, wrote for the court.
"Indeed, a silent thumbs down or other crude hand gesture may be used to express contempt or impertinence, thus qualifying as insolent behavior under [the ordinance]," Tallman wrote, "but would not necessarily be disruptive" and would be protected by law.
Judge N. Randy Smith, appointed by former President George W. Bush, dissented. He contended that the entire ordinance should have been struck down because much of it was "aimed at prohibiting expressive speech."
Benito Acosta, an immigration activist who was forcibly thrown out of a council meeting, had spoken out against a city ordinance that required police to enforce immigration law.